Updated September 21, 2022

What Are the Common Causes of Plane Crashes?

According to statistical reviews from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), plane crashes and other aviation accidents have steadily decreased since 2001. The total number of U.S. general aviation accidents went from 1,728 to 1,085 in 2020. While trends seem to be continuing downward steadily, that does not mean that accidents don’t happen. Using statistics to identify the root cause of these aviation accidents can help prevent more in the future.

Aviation Accidents

Before getting too invested in the causes of aircraft injuries, let’s take a moment to clarify the terminology. “Aviation accidents” are not solely confined to planes crashing. This category includes other aircraft such as helicopters, ultra-lights, gliders, etc.  Aviation accidents may not necessarily involve aircraft crashes. Occasionally passengers fall while boarding airlines, have health issues while onboard, or sustain injuries from turbulence. 

If you are injured in any type of aviation accident, you may be eligible for civil damages from the responsible party. The airplane attorneys at Wilson Kehoe Winingham have experience flying and understand aviation accidents. This knowledge helps us to determine fault in your case and ultimately helps you through any legal action that needs to be taken. 

Aviation Types

When trying to understand aircraft crashes, it’s also critical to pay attention to the nature of aviation involved. For example, there is a significant difference in flight accident rates between commercial and general aviation.

Commercial aviation includes scheduled passenger flights with larger planes and operates under Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 121. General aviation typically involves private or chartered flights with smaller aircraft.  These types of general aviation operate under FAR Part 135 or Part 95. General aviation accidents occur more often than commercial flights, even though commercial flights are usually more publicized than general aviation incidents.  All types of aviation involve complex issues and require specialized knowledge.  

What Causes Planes to Crash?

There are many causes of aviation accidents. Determining what causes a plane to crash can often take in-depth research and investigation to understand what happened. Flight track data can be retrieved, air traffic control transcripts can be obtained, and sometimes aircraft record in-flight data that can be recovered after an accident. It’s important to have an attorney help obtain as much information as possible shortly after a crash occurs because some data may only be available for a limited period of time.  The aviation attorneys at Wilson Kehoe Winingham can help gather this type of information quickly and efficiently. 

Human Errors in Aviation

Pilot error is the number one cause of aviation accidents. Piloting an aircraft requires lengthy training, a knowledge of the mechanical components of an aircraft, and hand-eye coordination skills to effectively and safely maneuver an aircraft.  Pilots also have to think ahead. Planning flights, checking the weather, and anticipating changes are all keys to being a safe pilot. If a pilot doesn’t plan the flight properly, gets into bad weather, or doesn’t anticipate issues then airplane crashes can happen. Occasionally pilots become disoriented, especially while operating in clouds, under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).  Pilot disorientation can lead to stalls or spins that lead to crashes. Having an attorney that understands piloting is important if legal action is needed. 

Mistakes By Crew Members

Cockpit Resource Management is key to successful and safe aviation operation in larger aircraft with multiple crew members. This involves dividing up cockpit duties and making sure that each pilot in the cockpit knows their job. Managing  a cockpit also involves making sure each pilot feels confident and comfortable in speaking up if something in the cockpit appears wrong or unsafe. Airlines spend hours training pilots on cockpit resource management.  It is an important skill. If pilots don’t follow good cockpit resource management skills then air crashes can occur.  

Air Traffic Controller Negligence

Air traffic controllers play a very important role in aviation safety. Controllers help keep aircraft separated from each other and guide flights through congested airspace. Controllers communicate with pilots giving them flight headings and designating the altitude at which an aircraft must fly. If a controller gives a pilot wrong information or fails to maintain flight separation, then collisions can occur.  Air traffic control data and transcripts are retained for a limited period of time after an accident. It is important to request and obtain this information as soon as possible after a collision.  

Weather Conditions

Weather is often a key factor in aviation accidents. It’s the pilot’s responsibility to know and understand the weather along a flight route. Air traffic controllers share responsibility for providing weather information to pilots. If wrong information is obtained or flights are not planned by following the expected weather conditions, then accidents can occur. Obtaining information about the weather after an accident is also important. 

Improper Aircraft Maintenance

Proper aircraft maintenance is extremely important. There are many rules and regulations governing the maintenance of an aircraft. Airplane mechanics must follow checklists, guidelines, and inspection requirements. Inspection requirements vary depending on the type of FARs the flight is being operated under. It can be difficult to determine if a mechanical issue caused an aircraft to crash. Post-accident inspections are crucial to understanding if a mechanical issue was related to the crash. 

Aircraft Design Defects

Aircraft designs vary greatly. Airplanes have different types of engines, propellers, wings, and cockpit instrumentation. If any of these components are not designed properly then crashes can occur. Aircraft must be designed to withstand turbulence, weather, and other types of different environments. These designs are usually thoroughly tested before being put into production. Gathering this testing information is important to make sure that the engineers put the design through proper protocols.  A defectively designed aircraft can lead to crashes. 

Instrument Flight Factors 

Depending on the weather conditions, aircraft will be governed by Visual Flight Rules (VFR) or Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). Flying VFR a pilot primarily uses eyesight and visual cues outside the cockpit to safely fly the aircraft.  Operating aircraft under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) involves specialized knowledge and skill.  Flying aircraft within clouds requires pilots to rely on cockpit instruments to safely maneuver the aircraft.  Attitude indicators, altimeters, airspeed, and heading indicators are all instruments pilots use to keep an aircraft straight and level while flying in clouds.  Understanding these instruments and how pilots use them are often important in finding how a crash occurred.  

Glide Slope Indicators

Landing an aircraft while cloud cover exists at an airport requires an Instrument Landing System (ILS) or GPS approach. These landing systems will provide a signal to aircraft that gives a glide slope path to follow from the air down to the runway. Keeping the aircraft on the glide slope is extremely important. Getting below the glide slope can cause collisions with terrain or ground obstacles. IFR-trained pilots spend many hours training to properly follow glide slope indicators. Failing to follow a glide slope path can cause aviation accidents. 

GPS for aircraft

GPS has become the primary navigation system for aircraft. GPS equipment is standard in nearly every aircraft. GPS can be programmed to give the aircraft’s autopilot headings and altitudes to follow so that the pilot does not have to hand fly the aircraft the entire flight. While GPS is an essential tool in aviation, it can also be a distraction for pilots, and if not programmed correctly can cause an aircraft to get off an assigned heading or altitude. GPS also can be used in IFR conditions to give pilots the information they need to safely land an aircraft where cloud cover exists over an airport.

How Do You Investigate a Plane Crash?

When one of our airplane accident attorneys joins your team, we use all the resources to figure out the plane crash reasons. This involves bringing in other expert witnesses, including engineers, metallurgists, and meteorologists to analyze the entire case as well. 

To get the best picture of what happened, we need to know what occurred before the flight, during the accident, and after the accident. Our investigations often involve listening to evidence from the cockpit voice recorder, checking the flight data recorder, reading through corporate policies, inspecting aircraft wreckage, and getting to an accident site itself. We try to leave no stone unturned in the efforts to identify who was responsible for a  plane crash accident.

Once the WKW team completes our investigation, we provide recommendations on how best to proceed. Often this involves filing a lawsuit against responsible parties. Occasionally we conclude that there is no viable liability theory to pursue that will lead to an economic recovery. In any event, we do our best to keep our clients informed and up to date on our investigation and findings.

Hire a Wilson Kehoe Winingham Lawyer for Your Aviation Accident Representation

WKW is an Indianapolis-based personal injury law firm with decades of experience across a variety of legal matters. Aircraft accidents are only a small portion of the cases we handle. Chris Stevenson and Bruce Kehoe both have extensive knowledge of aviation and are ready to assist with any legal issues arising from an aviation accident. If you or a loved one is injured in an aircraft accident, reach out to our law firm for representation

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